Embedded development

Lately I’ve been looking around at microcontrollers.

With my work with Eze Corp, I’ve gotten quite accustomed to the MSP430. It’s a nice little MCU, with a very low power drain, gcc port and is in general, quite easy to drive. At my workplace, I use a Windows XP machine to do development under MSYS, using a MSP FET-430UIF JTAG device for programming and debugging. This is not my preferred mode of development, I’d much rather be doing it on a Linux host (or at least something that properly understands POSIX)… but it’s tolerable.

For my home projects though… this isn’t an option. I do not own a Windows computer any more, and in any case, I dislike working with it at my workplace — to hell with using it in my recreation! (The reasons why are best saved for another rant at some other time. No, I’m not a free-software hippie, I have other reasons.)

There are a number of MCUs available that I’m aware of. The biggest hurdle with many of them is the requirement of some piece of hardware which is either proprietary, expensive and/or unavailable. I like the MCUs that provide a JTAG interface, since it’s a well defined protocol that allows real-time debugging of the device as well as programming. JTAG for what its worth is little more than an SPI bus at the hardware level, it’s what’s layered on top of this that differs between devices.

JTAG can be implemented via GPIO. Since a computer parallel port is merely a specialised form of GPIO port, this enables people to wire up a JTAG port to a parallel port, and bit-bang the signals. There’s a couple of issues with this approach:

  • Parallel ports (I mean real ones) are getting harder to come by, especially on portable computers (understandable on netbooks, but I don’t see why full-size laptops don’t have them…anyway)
  • Most USB Parallel cables only have the smarts to drive a printer, they don’t allow arbitrary bit-banging of data. (e.g. the PL2305. And try explaining the difference to a salesperson…)
  • USB introduces a 1~2msec latency… which stuffs up timing at high speed.

I’ve seen some programmers (for PIC and AVR chips) that use RS-232. Now these are usually specialised devices for a given range of MCUs… that’s fine… but they suffer the same problem as the parallel-port JTAG cables… that is, most modern computers don’t have RS-232 anymore for some silly reason (as I say, understandable on netbooks… but are they saying they can’t cram a mini-din8 somewhere on a 15″ laptop?!)… and the USB latency screws timing up (I suspect this is the issue with the PL2303-based adapters we have here).

That leaves me with native USB devices.

A lot of the ones used by ARM devs are based on a FTDI chip which offers UART (RS-232) and SPI… so you get a serial console and a JTAG in one unit. Nice… In addition, there’s a open framework for debugging with them, OpenOCD. I don’t have the knowledge necessary to port this across to other MCUs… I guess one hope is that a MSP430 guru might contribute an OpenOCD port, but in the short term this isn’t an option.

For many ARM devices, there’s the J-link developed by Segger.  I’ve mentioned this one in past posts.  For MSP430, TI provide their MSP FET430UIF.  Both of these devices are on the nose from a usability point of view.  Both require you to use proprietary software in order to access their device.  This is fine if you’re on a supported platform, and the tool is well maintained.

For the J-link… well, if you’re not on Windows… forget it, that’s all they support.  The advice from them is to just run a Windows computer purely to run their GDB proxy software (which costs too I might add).

TI’s tool is theoretically a little better for support… the userspace drivers are proprietary freeware… but again, if you’re not using Windows or Linux on an i386 PC, forget it.  More to the point, the Linux version doesn’t seem to get updated as often — so the only real option is Windows.  Bad luck for me and my Yeeloong.

For what it’s worth, I do not understand why these things need to be proprietary… it’s a flipping programming cable.  Just moves data from one end to the other.  If they need to load firmware into the RAM of the chip being programmed, fine… but why can’t this be an ELF binary or something that just gets picked up by OpenOCD (or equivalent) and stuffed down the wire?

Devices like the Rabbit Semiconductor series of microcontrollers drive me insane with their non-standard nonsense… they decided to chuck many years of C history down the gurgler and invent their own “wannabe C”. #include <foo.h>? Nah… don’t be silly, we’ll just stuff everything into .lib files and #use them. Urgh!

I’d love to know what low-end microcontrollers exist that don’t exhibit the proprietary nonsense that is outlined above. 8 or 16 bits wide… I like ARM, but I’m not needing something that flashy. I like the low current drain of MSP430, and the fact they use gcc… which I guess pushes me in the direction of AVR and maybe PIC, but I’d be interested in other options. Cheap is important too, I don’t have a lot of cash for expensive tools or chips.

The other thing in the favour of AVR/PIC MCUs, is that there’s a local shop that I can buy them from — no need to order on-line. Farnell and RS have a wide variety, but I have to purchase from their website, which is awkward for me.

The applications I’d have in mind? Well, one idea is a more modern version of my headlamp… some of these MCUs draw less power than the 74HC14 chip used in that project (a few mA in standby mode) and would offer more functionality. Other applications include small controllers for amateur radio projects (not SDR though).

I’m really interested to know what controllers are out there, which are open-source friendly. Once I have a clear picture of what’s on offer, I can look more closely at my applications.